Beth slept fitfully all night. She couldn't escape the thoughts tumbling crazily through her mind, but every once in a while exhaustion overtook her, and she'd slip into a light sleep. Then she'd dream - dreams filled with John. And the shock of what she'd discovered would jerk her awake. Before long, the whole process would start all over again.
In the morning, she was blurry-eyed and her temples were throbbing with the beginnings of a headache. Despite how she felt, she had no choice but to attend Mass. James and Bella, her nephew and niece, were participating in a special Christmas program. Not to show up would disappoint them. Besides, her entire family would be there; it was easier to make the effort and go now than to offer excuses later.
Before she left, Beth swallowed two aspirin with a glass of orange juice. Her mother had planned a large brunch afterward.
By the time Beth arrived at the church, the parking lot was almost full. She hoped her mother had saved her a place.
Joyce was lying in wait just inside the church vestibule, which meant she had something on her mind - and Beth could easily guess what it was.
"You're late and it's time for Mass," her mother said, slipping her arm around Beth, as if she was afraid her daughter might make a run for it at the last minute. "Your father saved us two places, but I don't think he'll be able to hold on to them much longer."
"Sorry, Mom, I got a slow start."
"I want to hear every detail about Leavenworth." Joyce narrowed her eyes. "Every detail," she repeated ominously.
"Yes, well...I'll explain later." She wouldn't tell her family everything, though. She felt overwhelmed by the events of the day before. Heidi's arrangement with Peter - John - on her behalf was a further complication, one she didn't need. But the immediate problem was how much to say to her parents.
As soon as Mass began, Beth's problems seemed to lift from her shoulders. The beauty of the church, with its decorations of poinsettia and evergreen boughs, the joyful music and the sermon's message - about forgiving yourself and not allowing past mistakes to hold you back - seemed to be just for her. The Christmas pageant was delightful and when she joined in the carol-singing, her heart felt free.
That morning, her entire life had felt like a disaster. By the end of Mass, Beth had begun to feel a new sense of hope. Maybe this bizarre coincidence involving John was meant to be. Maybe...maybe they'd have a second chance, despite all the bitterness and grief.
The family brunch at her parents' home was her only remaining hurdle today. Everyone wanted to know about Peter.
"Don't keep us in suspense," her mother said as she passed the platter of scrambled eggs to Beth.
"Mom, please." Foolishly she'd hoped to avoid lengthy explanations and at first she'd thought that might actually happen, since everyone's attention was focused on her niece and nephew, who'd played minor roles in today's program. But she should've known it wouldn't be that easy. At Joyce's comment, everyone stopped eating and stared at Beth.
"We're just curious," her sister added. "If you tell us to mind our own business, we will."
"Angela," their mother said. "Don't even suggest Marybeth keep this to herself!"
Groaning, Beth could see that it was useless to resist. Her mother felt entitled to an answer - and it had better be the right answer, too. Joyce had lit a candle, after all.
"Yesterday I - " Beth thought about telling the truth. The direct approach had its benefits. But the thought of explaining that Peter wasn't Peter but John Nicodemus, her ex-husband, was more than she could handle. As her mental debate continued, Beth hesitated, leaving her sentence unfinished.
"Marybeth, please," her mother implored.
"We didn't meet," she blurted out.
"You didn't meet?" The question echoed around the table.
"Don't tell me you chickened out," her mother cried. The horrified look was back, as if Beth had, once again, been a disappointment to the family.
She couldn't tell them the real reason she hadn't met Peter, so she just sat and gazed blankly at the wall.
After a moment, her parents' eyes met. Her father cleared his throat. "Actually, your mother and I suspected this might happen. We feel it's time, Beth, for you to consider counseling."
"What?" Beth couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"Your father and I are willing to pay for it," her mother put in.
There was no point in arguing. Beth could see they weren't going to budge from their decision. "I don't object to counseling," she murmured. "In theory, that is. I just don't think I need it."
"You need it," her mother said grimly.
"Can we talk about this after Christmas?" Beth asked, wanting to delay any further discussion until she'd had time to analyze her own reactions to the Peter/John confusion.
"Of course we can," her sister assured her sympathetically.
So her sister was in on this, as well. That loving, compassionate look was a dead giveaway.
Beth left her parents' home shortly after the brunch dishes had been washed and put away. As she drove back to her own place, she deliberated on what to say to Peter. Despite the fact that he was really John, she'd come to think of him as Peter - a new man. A different man.
Once home, she shed her coat and purse and logged on to the Internet. The moment she did, Peter sent her an instant message.
I wondered when you'd get here.
His comment indicated that he'd been waiting for her to come online.
I'm here now, she typed back. I want to talk to you about meeting later this week.
Are you having second thoughts?
She mulled over her answer. Yes. You see, I've already made one disastrous mistake in my life when it comes to relationships and I'm not eager to make another.
In other words, you're gun-shy.
This might surprise you, Peter wrote back, but I am, too.
Really? Then because she couldn't resist, she asked, Was your marriage that horrible?
I guess not. We were both young and immature.
Beth couldn't leave it at that. This was a perfect opportunity to discover exactly what Peter thought of her. Do you have any regrets?
He didn't reply right away. Some.
Me, too, she told him. More than I realized.
Has your ex remarried? Peter typed.
This was a tricky question. I heard he did.
So you don't keep tabs on him?
No. What about your ex-wife?
I have no idea. We went our separate ways. I don't harbor any ill will toward her. I couldn't tell you if she's remarried or not.
Did you love her? For one long heartbeat, Beth's finger was poised above the key that would submit her question. Her mind raced; she was afraid this was one she shouldn't be asking. She sent it anyway.
His answer came in the form of another question. Did you love your ex?
Her reply was simple. Yes. I guess I still do in some ways. And you?
Yes. A short pause and then he added, Is that the real problem? Are you so in love with your ex that you aren't ready to fall in love a second time?
Peter deserved the truth - but not yet. He admitted he'd loved her once, maybe still did, but preferred not to discuss her.
What Peter couldn't know was that she had information he didn't....
Listen, let's put the matter of our former marriages to rest. His next words flashed across the screen. My wife and I behaved badly. We were both at fault and I've accepted that our problems were complex. I've moved on and apparently so has she. Although painful, the divorce was for the best.
The best? Beth read those words and her throat tightened.
I wish her well and I'm sure you don't begrudge your ex-husband happiness. Am I right?
Yes, she typed back.
Good. Then let's drop the subject. Agreed?
Beth read his words, then pressed her fingers to her lips as she wondered how to respond. Agreed...only I'm not sure the timing is right for the two of us.
In what way?
It's Christmas, and I have enough family pressures without worrying about what will happen once we meet.
I know what you mean.
Shall we put this off? she asked.
For how long?
Why don't we wait until after New Year's.
His clipped reply implied that he was disappointed. Well, she was, too, but she couldn't spring the news on Peter like this, two days before the biggest holiday of the year.
You aren't going to duck out on me again, are you? Peter asked.
Beth appreciated his directness. No, she typed. I'd just like a little more time.
Whatever you say. But I believe it's important for both of us to put the past behind us.
"Behind us," Beth repeated aloud. Little did Peter know how impossible that would be.
"After New Year's?" Goodness gasped, leaning over Beth's shoulder to read her messages.
"What's wrong?" Mercy asked.
As far as Goodness was concerned, everything was wrong. Nothing was going the way she'd planned. She'd worked so hard, too, trying to bring these two lonely humans together.
"They have to meet before Christmas Eve," she muttered.
Mercy nodded. "So what are you going to do about it?"
Goodness smiled; a plan was already taking shape in her mind. She didn't want to intervene in human events; strictly speaking, that was against the rules. However, Beth and Peter weren't giving her much of an alternative. Either she acted on their behalf or Gabriel would have to report that she'd failed. No one would blame her for a small intervention, least of all Gabriel, but so far her track record had been exceptional - if she did say so herself - and she wanted to keep it that way.
Everyone in Heaven knew that humans were difficult subjects. At times they required a clear and unambiguous sign, or a bit of coaxing. Or both. And some people needed more help than others. In Goodness's opinion, Beth was one of those.
"Well, you have to admit we all had a shock," Mercy said, reminding Goodness of the scene in Leavenworth the day before.
"I agree." Goodness frowned as she contemplated her next move. Letting Peter and Beth stumble into each other on the street would be too convenient - and too subtle. No, whatever Goodness arranged would have to be dramatic. Personally she'd prefer a car crash, involving a massive explosion - no deaths, of course. The possibility of a SWAT team thrilled her and if she could manage it, a helicopter rescue. That would make her day. Those boys in black always did get her adrenaline going.
"Goodness," Mercy prodded gently. "I recognize that look in your eyes and I don't like the way your wings are fluttering."
"I think it might be best if you left now," she said primly.
"I don't want you to get in trouble, too."
Mercy's wings lifted her off the ground. "What are you going to do?"
Goodness pressed her lips together and shook her head. "It's better for you not to know."
That was when Shirley arrived. "What's going on here?" she demanded.
"I've got a few problems," Goodness said.
"You do?" Shirley muttered. "Well, you aren't the only one. My assignment's not working out the way it's supposed to."
Mercy frowned, and her gaze swung back to Goodness and then to Shirley again. "Do either of you have the feeling we might've been set up?"
Goodness sent her a puzzled glance. "What do you mean?"
"Think about it," Mercy said. "Shirley gets what would usually be a dream assignment. Just how hard can it be to give a boy a dog?"
"Well, actually, this prayer request is one of the most difficult ones I've ever received." She sighed. "Not only do we have the issue with Carter's father, there's this one dog that refuses to go away."
"But under normal conditions, it wouldn't be difficult, would it?"
Shirley lifted one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. "Not really. The thing that troubles me most is this dog. He doesn't seem...ordinary. And he simply won't leave. I think that problem's finally been solved, though. He's at the animal shelter and he'll probably be adopted soon."
Shirley wore a sad frown. "Well, there's nothing I can do right now, so I've put the matter out of my mind. I'm here to help you two."
Mercy looked crestfallen. "My assignment's also failing."
"You don't happen to need a SWAT team, do you?" Goodness asked excitedly. It seemed a shame not to call out the big guns when they might be able to help her friends, too.
Mercy's expression was horrified. "Goodness, what are you thinking?"
She held up her hands. "Imagine this: helicopters descending, ropes dropping to the ground and men - young, handsome men - sliding down to the rooftops."
"To do what?" Mercy cried. "You'll ruin everything. I've got enough troubles with Harry and Rosalie as it is. I don't need that kind of help. Just the sound of those helicopters would send him into cardiac arrest."
"So what can we do?" Goodness asked. "We've got three unfinished assignments on our hands."
"At this point," Mercy suggested, "maybe we should let these situations play out and see what happens."
It seemed so little. But perhaps Mercy and Shirley were right. She'd done her best to bring Peter and Beth together, and her efforts, such as they were, had resulted in shock and confusion. Perhaps she should step aside and see what these humans could figure out for themselves.
Still, she was disappointed.